Monday, March 5, 2012

Caramelized Onions - Sous Vide hack

After making dulce de leche, and caramelizing milk, French Onion Soup and the required Caramelized Onions was a totally logical next step.

I was worried about the "gas bloat" that affects all raw veggies when put through the sous vide process.  And with good reason.  When I looked up my favorite sous vide blog's recipe for making caramelized onions (SVKitchen) they even suffered burst bags, and resorted to double bagging.  That is one solution.

I try not to using the sous vide bags only once, especially if I don't get them very dirty, but I really hate washing them.  And reusing bags is a pain since they curl at the edges and can be tough to seal the second time.
A 2 C jar

Now onions are juicy little creatures, and will rapidly slump into their own liquid.  So they seemed like they were perfect fodder for my next test of the "jar in the sous vide" method.

chop chop chop
layer: butter, onion 1/2,
butter, onion1/2,
butter & pitch of salt

1 onion per jar
smoosh it all in

Cook the onions at 200˚F (93.3˚C) for the recommended 15 hours.  I had the water about 3/4 of the way up the sides of the jar.  So when I started there was a bit of onion above the water level.  Lids were on, and the screw bands were on loosely (about a 1/4 turn back from finger tight).

The Results... Hey it worked! 

The one drawback seemed to be the onions on top, out of the onion juice got a bit darker.  When I tasted them, they had just a hint of a bitter flavor.  This could easily be avoided in the future by pushing all the onions into their juice around 2 to 4 hours in.

Mostly... the top looks a bit dark.
I was forced to eat all the dark bits to keep them from ruing my soup.  Turns out, eating a non-dark onion with an over-darkened onion was heavenly.  I bet they wouldn't have ruined the soup at all.

1 onion's worth
From there, I drained the onion juice, and cooked the onions down to a little darker, and followed the rest of the SVKitchen French Onion Soup recipe.

Luscious soup, no popped bags, no double bags and still no oniony smell taking over the house!

P.S.  Well now its hailing!  I have the perfect remedy.

When is a Sous Vide not a Sous Vide?

When you are using it like a crock pot! (Insert evil laugh here)

Well, ok it's always sort of used like a crock pot, but as I was scratching my head over the whole cooking dried beans problem, and the making chili problem, the time I spent using the SousVide as a yogurt (and dulce de leche) maker came floating back into my head.

Is it so important to have a package that conforms to the ingredients if your ingredients will conform to any package?


Attacking the "SousVide a liquid" problem

So what is the vacuum doing anyway?

The magic is in the lower pressure created by the vacuum!  Right?
I, like many others, have labored under the mistaken idea that the vacuum sealer was imparting some superior virtue to the "food stuffs + flavorings" combinations in those vacuum sealed bags.  My main mistake was bolstered by the correct but completely out-of-context knowledge that water boils (changes from liquid phase to gas phase) at lower and lower temperatures as the pressure on it is decreased.  The pressure has somewhere between NOTHING and Practically Nothing to do with the magic of Sous Vide.

(thanks MIT)

But the vacuum pump is sucking out all bubbles so all the food surfaces contact water through a solid with out the interference of air.  We're not creating an importantly lower pressure.
The magic is in the full contact of the highly efficient heat-transfer-medium (water) to the surface of the food.  And the plastic vacuum bags allow the water to be in contact without draining the food-of-choice of flavor by water logging it.  (And protecting it from the the drying and oxidizing properties of hot air.)

So not magic at all - just poaching with a barrier to the liquid.
Similar experiences in texture are available through poaching, but keeping the water at the desired "just below a simmer" is quite a trick on a stove top.  And the liquid is still above the optimal cooking temp.  Braising and stewing get one there as well, but again, water logging, and losing luscious flavor and texture (come back gelatin!).  Wrapping in foil and baking at low temps works too, but always risks drying the food out and is horribly inefficient (air is a low density, low heat capacity, heat transfer medium.  Seriously, would you rather stick your hand into a box of 400˚F air for 5 seconds or 400˚F liquid for 5 seconds?)

So that explains why fried fish is the best!
Frying does it exactly.  Wrap the food in an oil proof coat (batter), and fry until it floats.  This occurs because an appreciable amount of the water in the food has converted to steam (gas) and pops the food to the top of the liquid (lower density).  This also explains why frying is best with small pieces of food, or objects with a large-surface-area-to-actual-amount-of-matter ingredients (don't plug the hole in that turkey you are planning to fry), but isn't so poplar with large chunks of stuff (french fry, YES!  entire potato, NO!).  And whatever you do, keep water away from the hot oil, or you are a Mythbusters Episode without the insurance.
But when the cooking is complete, there's all that hot oil.  And not all foods respond well to that quick cooking. Deep fried dried beans anyone?  (Yes, the Chinese and Indians have made this good too, but that's another topic for another day.  And they are no longer the low-fat nutrition delivery systems they began as.)

The real magic is just better technology.
Two words, temperature control.  By today's standards "old fashioned" (Ya' know, ancient times, like from the 1970's) crock pots have wild fluctuations in temperature, but manage to make a go of it since they depend on the slow-motion-power of the ceramic crock to keep the transfer of temperature fluctuations to the food encased within to a minimum.

Today, when I sous vide my chicken breast to 140˚F (60˚C), I want it at 140˚F.  Not 138˚F (58.9˚C), not 142˚F (61.1˚C).  With eggs, the same thing. 64˚C (147.2˚F) means just that, and let me tell you, a degree of difference makes a whole different egg (protein folding thermodynamics, of course).

Which brings me back to the dried beans.

Crock pots are great for cooking them.  Long, low and slow with minimal power input.*  But I only want a small bowl of beans - enough for 3 people, not an entire baby-bathtub of beans.  I'm not feeding a hockey team here.  Which is what kept me from using my crock pot most of the time.  Sure if I were part of bigger family, large amounts of food at one time would make more sense.  But I've chosen the minimalist route, so my food needs on a given day are smaller.  And I can only eat the same meal so many days in a row before I go a bit batty (never would have made it as a wild-west prospector).

What your are saying is, cooking beans is different from cooking meat!
I know, crazy, right?  But the time/temperature/liquid combinations that are good for fresh meats are are different than for dried plant protein sources. (Hmmmm, bacalao?)  But the real key here is the beans are already in a liquid medium.  And all I need is a way to keep my small amount of liquid away from the large amount of heat bearing liquid.  Canning Jars!  They are supposed to be boiled - or even pressure canned.  (That is, heated to above boiling.)  So having them hang out below boiling for several hours seems like a great idea.  And they are easier to clean than the darn bags.  And they are in exactly as good a shape the second or tenth time as they were the first, no curly edges and problems shutting them.

Well, what do your experiments reveal?
Using 2C jars, I filled each with 1/2C dried beans and 1 1/2C liquid (water).

Ratio - 1:3 beans to water
A garlic clove, a pinch of red pepper flakes and some cumin seed

I popped them in the SousVide at 195˚F (90.5˚C) for the recommended 6 hours.

I placed the lids on top and barely screwed on the rims so any gasses could escape easily, same as when canning.

After 6 hours....

I did cook with the lids on.
This was removed for peeking in and testing purposes.
Black eyed peas!

They looked cooked...

Delicious, tender beans!  The long cook did make them extra flavorful.

Pro Tip:  The jar lets you test the beans along the way.  Especially handy if you are working with a new sort of bean.  You can take them out early if you need to, and let them cook longer if they need to.

Next: Hacking the Caramelized Onions

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Making Better (Chicken) Soup

Last week started with one of those rotisserie chickens.  I wondered why I don't buy them more often.  When I do, it seems like half my kitchen time disappears.  Boom! Dinner is almost instantly ready.

Oh right, I can only eat chicken all week every once in a while.
Lets face it - this is using far less energy per chicken
than if I were to cook it at home.

But when I do get one of those chickens -

Step 1 - Breast meat gets eaten first.  This lean mean dries out the fastest, so enjoy it at it's juiciest.  This time it got stirred in with a beurre rouge (red-wine butter sauce - which I had time to monkey with since the chicken was all cooked) and herby pasta.  Then lots of vinegary greens on the side.

Step 2 - Shred all the rest of the meat for fast access for the rest of the week.  I make 2 piles - larger pieces for sandwiches, etc. and smaller fussy pieces and all the juices in another for soup.

Step 3 - House favorite sandwiches.  Here that means chicken and swiss on flat bread.

Step 4 - And I hadn't done this in way too long - make soup!

It has actually been quite a while since I made soup from leftovers, and had forgotten just how darn simple it is.  Happily my recent cooking adventures have taught me a few tricks and this soup turned out much better than the variety I had stopped making.

Better Chicken Soup:
I went basically minestrone, but with chicken instead of beans.

How to make better soup?  Cook your vegetables so they are tasty!  Badly cooked vegetables are at the root of so many unenjoyable meals.  Develop the flavor in your vegetables when you cook them, don't just get them hot.  Anne Burrell really drives the point home when making her Pasta Bolognese.

soup pot
cutting board
long spoon
(ladle - optional)


lazy!  but tasty

Who knew?
Big bags of baby kales at Costco! 
when the freezer is empty
Dried herbs do great things for soups

1 C (or so) left over cooked chicken (bite sized pieces - dark meat is best)
4 - 8 C kale or other dark greens (spinach, chard)

1 Tbs Italian seasoning (basil, oregano, marjoram, thyme rosemary, savory & sage)
1 14oz can diced tomatoes (or equivalent)
1 Tbs oil
3 garlic cloves
1/2 large onion
1 C cooked small pasta (or rice/barley) or 1/2 C uncooked small pasta (shells, broken spaghetti, cous cous)
4 C chicken stock/broth
salt & pepper
(hard italian cheese & tasty olive oil for a fancy finish)


Make sure the chicken is bite sized.   Wash the greens and strip the leaves off the tough stems (or get the baby kales!)  Cut or tear the leaves into palm-sized pieces.  Smash, peel and finely chop the garlic.  Cut the onion into smallish pieces. (Cut in thirds toward the root end, and the then slice thinly).
Open the can of tomatoes.  Drain most of the juice out of the can (add it to your broth, or toss it) and have the drained tomatoes ready to add to the soup.


Heat the soup pot with the oil over medium high heat (I used bacon fat because it adds so much flavor.  A chopped up slice of bacon or two would also do a great job here as well.)  A sliver of onion in the pot will let you know when the oil is heated up and ready to go (by sizzling), usually about 4 minutes.
Add all the onion and stir over the heat for about 6 minutes - until the onion starts to soften and get a few brown edges.  Add the chopped garlic and Tbs of herbs.  Stir in for a few sizzles, then add the drained tomatoes.  Cook all the plant matter for about 10 minutes - until things look dry-ish and have a few browned spots.*
Stir in about a cup of stock, then add the kale.  Stir until all the kale is wilted and tiny.
Stir in the pasta and the rest of the broth.   Place a low boil if the pasta is uncooked - until the pasta gets cooked.
When the pasta is cooked, add the chicken and cook until the chicken is hot all the way through (just a few more minutes).

Ta-da better soup.

If you want to make this a little more special - grate some parmesan over the top, and drizzle a little tasty olive oil over the top.  Yum!

snobby oil, non-snobby price

We had this with cheesy garlic bread roasted under the broiler.

* Why all this vegetable browning?  It makes the most of the cooked flavors of the plants by driving out excess water and  caramelizing - or gently burning - the sugar inside them.
Adding vegetables to broth to cook is the same as boiling them.  It makes them water logged and often mushy and unpleasant.  Cooking them dry-ish, this way, is more like roasting or grilling them, and creates more flavors rather than stealing them away.